Using the Time We’ve Got to Talk Timelines

Weirdly, timelines are another version of maps. They both are stories to tell depending on the map you use. There is a takeaway from the information you are digesting. It is filled with data for you to learn from. At Xentity, we love data. Some people like raindrops on roses. Some like whiskers on kittens. Putting data to valuable use as part of the story is our favorite thing. We will take any opportunity to find ways to leverage data in any form it comes in to support progress.

Okay, what is the correlation or comparison between timelines and maps? It is really about aligning the where and when. Cartography to GIS to Geospatial has an amazing History. Before we move to Spatiotemporal, we like to focus on the temporal data journey and particularly on the history behind ‘timelines’. To keep things nice and simple to start, what exactly are timelines? The simplest definition is that a timeline is a graphic representation of the passage of time (typically as a line). A timeline is a chronological arrangement of events in the order of their occurrence. The keywords from those last two definitions are “graphic” and “events”. Graphic in this case means that this is a visual representation of data. The events themselves are that data. 

Now that we understand what they are, we can start talking about their history.

A Few Examples Throughout History

If we’re going to talk about timelines and their history, then we have to start with a few of the first modern timelines that were ever recorded. They are the Chart of Biography, made in 1765 and the New Chart of History, made in 1769. Both were designed by Joseph Priestley, a renowned scientist and theologian. These are widely regarded as the first modern timelines.

The New Chart of History, in particular, is considered an important artifact for historiography and infographic design.

There are plenty of other examples that can serve to demonstrate the idea that timelines can be displayed in a variety of ways with a variety of different subject matters. In the case of Priestley’s New Chart of History, pictured to the right, we see a chart that linearly moves from left to right to display the passage of time. It also vertically stacks different regions and civilizations that lasted over time. This is why the Roman Empire takes up a massive amount of space.

Reigns of English Monarchs

A more simple example of a historical timeline would be Etienne-Jules Marey’s Reigns of English Monarchs piece. Published in 1885, Marey attempted to showcase the reigns of English kings and queens. He emphasized how long they reigned and about times of peace and war. You will notice the blacked-out bottom sections. Those are the wartime sections.

Rand McNally Histomap of World History

Published around 1932, this histomap of world history was designed to show historical events from 2,000 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (or at least, a close approximation of 2,000 A.D.). Notice how different vertical stripes show various peoples and civilizations. The width showcases the influence of that particular period. This is best demonstrated by Egypt having an extremely wide influence during the B.C. years and ‘losing some weight’ so to speak, once A.D. came into the picture.

What Point Are We Trying to Make Here?

A very simple one. Perhaps the overall layout of what a timeline is and what it is trying to accomplish has not changed much. Instead, the styles have evolved. Take Priestely’s two visualizations. Both have some similarities to the later examples mentioned. However, you may also notice that both have something of an information overload, to the point where the visualization becomes messy. 

Then, we have Marey’s piece, which opts for a more simplistic style. Two major colors to differentiate two major data points (peacetime and wartime). A true great data-ink ratio. It also fails in graphical excellence, unless you speak French or know what the color codes are ahead of time. 

Finally, with the Histomap of World History, we see a good data-ink ratio and good visual integrity that does a fantastic job of explaining the piece’s major points. Most importantly, it’s easy to digest because it’s simple to understand. Egypt was extremely influential in B.C., therefore it took up a tremendous amount of space in that area of the histomap timeline.

Timelines are still examples of data visualization. That means Tufte’s rules bind them as much as a graph or a pie chart. Graphical excellence in being easy to understand; visual integrity that does not misrepresent any information; a good data-to-ink ratio, where colors serve a purpose for the graph; and finally, aesthetic elegance, in the sense of simplicity. We are not saying that timelines evolved in history to fit Tufte’s rules. It’s more along the lines that the style itself changed and improved over time and Tufte himself took notice. If history is all about learning from the past and improving, it fits that timelines demonstrate so.

The Potential of Timelines, Fused With Maps

Timelines can hold a great deal of valuable data. Any example of data visualization has that potential. History is valuable as data itself. We don’t have a ton of museums centered around our history all across the country because we do not value that data. It’s quite the opposite. For human beings, there are arguably fewer valuable pieces of information than our history.

There are multiple examples of how changes over time representatively aligned with geospatial data can help influence analysis, models, and decision-making.

  • How governmental boundaries have changed
  • How discovery of minerals can help leverage further exploration of such
  • How climate change and ecology and the multiple atmospheric, fauna and flora, ocean change, water census, and other dimensions of science have correlation, causation, and contribution relationships. AI and Spatiotemporal analysis will continue to push the boundaries of the need to support these challenges.
  • How the improvement of data collection with more density and veracity changes data models.
  • How world markets, transactions, population, human movement, and technology influence each other (similar to climate change in correlation, causation, and contribution relationships).
  • How can asset managers in infrastructure and transportation leverage time to support planning out maintenance and coordination of planning and construction to proactively maintain our civil infrastructure?
  • How the spread of disease, and virus changes with mobility, safety, and policy changes. (The COVID-19 Pandemic demanded more data to support such predictive analytics).
  • The list goes on into geopolitical climate change, cultural and scientific advancement, maturity and regression and so much more.

A Bit More History

The journey in time and maps got a nice jumpstart on the worldwide scale when Hans Rosling leveraged his GapMinder concepts to show off the worldwide scale challenges across many of these areas integrating charts and time as well as offering map filtering. Google took notice acquiring some of his solutions and offering Motion Charts – though was deprecated in 2017. Tableau continues to be a leader in data visualization also moving its content and time-based chart core to more integration with maps. From the Spatial Analysis side, ArcGIS continues to lead from the where side respectively. 

The focus on time and geospatial currently is on real-time data analysis and how AI ties in such as with the platform. There are a growing number of research publications on “spatiotemporal analysis interactive map”.These examples show we are in the early stages and do have a ways to go to figure out how best these tools and supporting data can continue to contribute to understanding the relationships of time. 

So What?

There are many questions on how technology, data integration, and data maturity will assist in the progress of when/where or Spatiotemporal analysis to support decision-making. How can we show off that data at its full potential? How can we integrate it with other kinds of technology to make the visual presentation of a timeline even better? 

We’re seeing more advanced technology integrate the dimensions provided by timelines, maps, infographics, and charts (e.g. Story maps which allow users to combine text, interactive maps, charts, and multimedia content to create rich, immersive stories). We’re seeing more analytics tool sets go beyond static slide deck charts to support more interaction on zooming in, filtering, and sliding on time and map dimensions. There are plenty of incredible possibilities. 

Timelines alone have a long history as another powerful example of data visualization. As data engineers and analysts provide more integration of time and place, data scientists can take the time to take pieces of data from those old timelines recorded on paper and digitize them, versioning the data, and allowing for querying by when, where, and what. Furthermore, the presentation of the resulting interactive visualizations with content leveraging data journalism constructs can invoke true data storytelling

We’re excited to see this journey continue as the data age combines the when, where, and what into all that it can be.